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The Lead Review

On The Blink: WINK By CHAI
Tara Joshi , May 20th, 2021 08:51

The third album by Chai finds the Tokyo quartet at their most smooth and comforting – but also their most prickly and pointed, finds Tara Joshi

In the press release for CHAI’s third album, the title, WINK, is explained in the context of their preceding records: “After the ‘i’ of [first album] PINK and the ‘u’ of [second album] PUNK – which represented the band’s act of introducing themselves, and then of centring their audiences – they have come full circle with the ‘we’ of WINK.”

It’s a nice explainer, but at the heart of the Japanese band’s work there has always been a sense of collectivism – the “we” has always been innate to what they do. Take last year, when they put out a track with Spanish band Hinds, ‘UNITED GIRLS ROCK’N’ROLL CLUB’. As the title might suggest, it’s a song filled with a sense of, well, unity – women in sprightly bands happily coming together to shout themselves and their peers out.

Indeed, if you’ve ever seen the four-piece live, it’s immediately apparent: the coordinated outfits, the joyously synchronised choreo, the zealous chanting. It’s there in the fun and frenzied beauty of their first two records, which both brim with an energy – chaotic pop-rock, but also expansive swathes of electronic – that melds together to lift you up. Thankfully WINK continues in that lineage, while also allowing space for more slowness, more languorousness; a glimmering pool of tender warmth that swims pleasantly through it all.

The group consists of twin sisters Mana and Kana, and their high school classmates Yuna and Yuuki, and they have always been clear that it’s their friendship that sustains them in their creative output (“CHAI equals friendship”, Yuuki explained in a recent interview with gal-dem).

But of course, the reality of that togetherness necessarily changed during the pandemic. We’ve been living through a period in which we’ve been forced to isolate, taking a step back from our innate need to be around others, all for a greater good. The pandemic, for all its draining exhaustion, has given many people time to pause and ruminate. It has meant time alone, forced to accept ourselves. Notably, it’s also a pause which has given time and space for more people to become politicised and radicalised – time to spend reading up on social justice, on solidarity. Protests have felt more galvanised than in recent years, with more and more young people reading up on solidarity and prison abolition, with a new generation becoming aware of the importance of collectivism.

It’s within this backdrop that WINK, arrives, making the case for “we” – celebrating the group and it’s listeners in equal parts. It’s their first record working with external producers, and tellingly pushes the group to a wider sonic scope than ever. It pulses with an excellent hip-hop and R&B polish, blending waves of sheen with their proclivity for brash pop and the cascading dance-y punk energy of a group like Le Tigre. Take ‘It’s Vitamin C’, which shimmies with the echoes of the dancefloor while also playing with breezy jazz hip-hop inflections.

After self-isolating last year, the group’s return has its foundations in Zoom calls and remote Garageband productions. There’s certainly an introspection presumably born out of that time at home, and the record starts off more lush, silky and laid-back than we’ve heard from them before. Take opening track, ‘Donuts Mind If I Do’, the floaty love song dedicated to baked goods (“Hello, hello, would you like any donuts, honey?”), which is sprinkled with all the effervescent, sweet lightness of a blanket of icing sugar. Or there’s the breathy, tactile ballad ‘Maybe Chocolate Chips’ – after a year at home with perhaps more time contemplating our bodies, it’s a sexy ode to moles and appreciating yourself, featuring swoon-worthy bars from Chicago rapper-singer Ric Wilson (“Your moles are what deem you special / And if he can’t see don’t settle”).

But while there’s an undercurrent of that sugary softness, sensual love and powerful femininity that permeates WINK, this is a record that’s still just as defined by the exquisite propulsion of their earlier work. There’s ‘ACTION’, which specifically channels political energy and solidarity – they’ve said the writing was inspired by the Black Lives Matter protests of last summer, and although the phrases used are arguably somewhat hackneyed (it features lines like “Action is more than words” and “Be the change you want to see”), the simplicity here is the charm. It’s a punchy, jerky call to arms that gets you pumped.

Standouts also include the brash, skittering heat of the excellent ‘END’, or the spangled game console sounds of gloriously upbeat ‘PING PONG!’. Even gentler tracks, like the Toro Y Moi-style ‘IN PINK’, featuring producer and artist extraordinaire Mndsgn, or the wobbly bass of ‘Nobody Knows We Are Fun’, have a discernible strut to them.

WINK is CHAI’s most comforting listen to date, but that doesn’t mean they’ve left behind the fun or the bold, animated bite of it all. Instead, it’s a record that builds on everything they’ve done before, understanding their strengths together as a group and then growing something more immersive and insightful from it – all while remaining deliciously joyful.